Top take-aways from The Challenge Series

We launched The Challenge Series in April to connect you with answers and advice from respected industry leaders as we manage our way through this pandemic. It’s been incredibly insightful to hear how some of today’s most respected execs are navigating the same issues we’re all dealing with ourselves, and we’ve been overwhelmed by the positive feedback from our community. In the spirit of sharing, we wanted to pass along some of our favorite lessons learned from the first three events, covering Operations, Marketing, and Finance. 

How do you shift your operations during a crisis? (Watch the replay)

We kicked off the series with a conversation with Cloudflare Co-Founder and COO Michelle Zatlyn and Gusto COO Lexi Reese, who offered sound advice on the operational issues facing companies today. These two respected leaders offered plenty of practical wisdom; here are a few of our favorite take-aways. 

  • Reel in your planning and budgets early. Much of the conversation focused on planning and budgets. Both Zatlyn and Reese acted quickly to trim budgets to the basics and must-haves only. According to Reese, “We threw out the idea of an annual plan. We have two priorities now: Keep our sector healthy and run operations way more efficiently.” Zatlyn added, “If you were tracking your business on a monthly or quarterly basis, you’ve got to move to weekly.”

  • Take care of customers and employees. Reese spoke several times about the importance of taking care of your community: “It’s not about having all the answers. It’s about being there for people when they need you.” She later added, “We had to make decisions and prioritize what enables us to earn customer love. That meant trimming and streamlining costs to help us weather this uncertain climate and emerge stronger.” Zatlyn echoed the feeling, saying, “In a crisis, leadership matters.” We agree!

  • Do what you can to come out stronger. Zatlyn also offered some inspiration in the form of advice. She recommended that companies focus on making changes to the business that will allow them to come back stronger after the pandemic, saying “Don’t get back to normal. Get back to better. Innovation comes out of these constraints.” In other words, take the time now to reassess your business and make changes that will help you flourish beyond the pandemic. Apply everything you’ve learned. Why go back to normal if your “normal” could use improvement? 

Marketing and messaging in the time of Coronavirus  (Watch the replay)

Zoom CMO Janine Pelosi and TripActions CMO Meagen Eisenberg have had opposite pandemic experiences – video collaboration has skyrocketed, while business travel basically stopped overnight. Both leaders offered excellent insights on how marketers can adjust their strategies and messages in a crisis. Here are a few of their practical tips.  

  • Build pipeline without being tone-deaf. Is this even possible? Eisenberg offers some advice: “Yes, if you focus on the educational material and the value you’re providing, and you’re not stretching what you provide. It’s not hardcore selling right now.” Now more than ever, authenticity is key. Create content and messages that offer genuine value and you’ll earn customer love, in addition to leads.

  • Break through the noise. Pelosi offered some great advice, saying “Attach yourself to something bigger, but in a way that’s authentic. Finding authentic ways to be relevant is key. Look at your partners and community, and don’t be afraid to send an ask.” Eisenberg pointed out that “we’ve seen some great things happening with creativity,” shouting out TripActions’ own #PassThePlane campaign. She also cautioned us to “think about your tone. We don’t need to be sad and depressed all the time – happy messages are welcome – but always consider your tone. If you’re unsure, test the message on five people before you send.” And Pelosi sums it up with: “For us, it’s all about metrics. Have the metrics set up so you can really understand the user voice. You have to track and understand sentiment not just in the good times, but even more so in the bad.”

  • Experiment with new tactics. Why not now? As Pelosi said, “The important thing is to pivot and change. All people knew was one element of marketing, and now they have to diversify. Education, telehelp, social try it all.” Eisenberg added, “We made a fast pivot to content that’s educational. People are re-educating, they want to come out stronger. Webinars are making a comeback. We’re trying to be smarter and more targeted with every message.”

  • Crisis communications call for transparency. Both leaders stressed the need for quick and honest communication. Pelosi says, “You have to stay true to who you are and to the core values of your company. You have to make the right decisions for the right reasons. If you try to candy coat something, it just doesn’t work. Surround yourself with the smartest people possibile and keep your eyes wide open.” Eisenberg chimed in with: “You have to be truthful and transparent. People put things out there that are not true, and the only way to counter that is to always be truthful. You have to be honest and even more transparent than you normally would be.”

  • A final piece of advice? According to Eisenberg, “Beyond mental health and wellness, every leader should be focused on customers and product-market fit. The companies that survive are the ones who have something that customers need. So keep checking in. Watch your usage stats and get your team focused on building what’s necessary to move forward.” 

How do enterprises manage their spend during a crisis? (Watch the replay)

Of course finance is top of mind in an economic downturn. Zendesk CFO Elena Gomez and Zoom CFO Kelly Steckelberg offered their insights and experiences with shifting budgets, managing priorities, and tracking metrics. Here are some key points. 

  • Where are you making cuts right now? This is a question on everyone’s mind, of course. Gomez said, “Our process at Zendesk is a bit surgical, but we look at which investments we want to preserve to maintain growth. We want to keep innovation, engineering, and the people who are selling and helping customers. And we inspect this on a regular cadence in case we need to course correct.”

  • What metrics should companies be looking at right now? Metrics have been a hot topic each week. With regard to finance, Gomez says, “Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) will always be important in SaaS. We’re still very focused on renewal rates. The most important thing that drives your revenue is your currently booked business. Really the metrics haven’t changed as much as the cadence with which we look at them.” Steckelberg agreed, adding “Your core fundamental metrics should still be in place, even if they look different than they have historically.”

  • What does the world of M&A look like right now? Here Steckelberg offers positive news, saying: “We just made an acquisition completely via Zoom. In some ways this works even better. We were able to get it done quickly and quietly, and all via Zoom.” Gomez was more reserved, saying “We’re looking at the market opportunistically to see what would complement our offering but not any more or any less because of COVID-19.”

  • Advice for selling to the enterprise? Everyone wants to sell to the enterprise, but what’s the best way? Don’t shift your message. Steckelberg offers practical advice here, saying: “Don’t make whatever you’re selling about COVID. Make it about solving a larger problem. We hope COVID is short term in nature, so you need to give it a bigger perspective.”

  • Advice for finance teams: Echoing sentiments from our previous sessions, Gomez recommends to “take care of your customers – I can’t overstate that – as well as your employees. And make sure you’re ruthless in your prioritization.”

Huge shout out to our speakers and viewers, as well as to Zoom for powering our sessions. We’ve learned so much these past few weeks. Don’t miss this next event, Leading with Empathy and Kindness in Times of Uncertainty. Plus, thanks to an overwhelmingly positive response, we’ve added two extra sessions to the agenda Building Sales and Pipeline in a Downturn and How to Build a Customer-Centric Org. See you there!

We believe culture, diversity, and operational excellence are a key part of building truly great companies. Learn more at www.operatorcollective.com or on Twitter and LinkedIn.